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Through the Lens

It is a quarter of a century since Lens defied expectations to win their only Ligue 1 title, a fairy-tale triumph that kicked off epic scenes in northern France – and eventually at Wembley too

WORDS Chris Burke | INTERVIEWS Jérôme Vitoux and Ondřej Zlámal

History
Hear the word “skip” in a football context and you might assume it’s shorthand for a team’s captain, the skipper. Or perhaps a player, maybe even the “skip”, needs to skip a tackle or skip a game with a broken metatarsal. Sometimes, however, such as a spring day 25 years ago on a packed boulevard in northern France… well, a skip is just a skip.

The year 1998 still towers over the landscape of French football as a glorious milestone. Who, after all, can forget how RC Lens shocked a nation by clinching their one and only Ligue 1 title… and also that other thing with Les Bleus and Brazil? But whereas Zinédine Zidane and Co cruised down the Champs-Élysées in an open-top bus for their World Cup victory parade, the domestic champions had to settle for a more ramshackle mode of transport – if you can call what is essentially a massive metal bin “a mode of transport”. Skips don’t usually tend to carry passengers, but this one carted a squad-load, the players leaning over the sides as they were towed through Lens by a tractor, and none other than the club’s president at the wheel.

“The madness” is how club legend Éric Sikora refers to Lens’s Ligue 1 title celebrations. It’s an apt phrase for that entire period, when a team representing a region in steep economic decline somehow conquered France, before going on to post a famous Champions League victory at Wembley. Les Sang et Or (the Blood and Gold) are back in the European elite this season, a quarter of a century after their sole French crown, and their return has stirred up memories in the small but passionate football hotbed, where Sikora’s name and those of his team-mates touched more hearts in 1998 than the likes of Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly. 

“The fans’ support is massive,” says Vladimír Šmicer, another hero of that title-winning team. “People in Lens love football and love the club. There is not much else to do, really. It’s a small town of about 35,000. And the stadium has a capacity of nearly 40,000. But there’s a large urban area around the town and a lot of people come to see the matches. The players feel a responsibility to make them happy and win for them.”

That was especially true in the 1990s as the closure of the last remaining pits devastated the former coalmining stronghold. An estimated 200,000 jobs were lost in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region over the final two decades of the century, and that put Les Sang et Or in the tricky position of defending the bruised honour of a struggling community. Too bad, then, that the club had never won a major title since being founded in 1906. And nor did that look poised to change at the start of the 1997/98 season, with Lens having barely staved off demotion to Ligue 2 a few months before.

“We almost got relegated the previous season so we didn’t know where we were going,” says Sikora, a local lad and childhood Lens fan who made a record 590 appearances for the club. As for Šmicer, he had come from further afield, the Czech international joining from Slavia Praha in 1996, but he too remembers the team’s toils in his debut campaign, before Roger Lemerre steered them to safety after replacing Slavoljub Muslin. “We didn’t play very well in that first season. Everyone was disappointed.”

The mood at the Stade Félix-Bollaert scarcely improved when Lemerre then left to work with France coach Aimé Jacquet. In an astute piece of internal recruitment, however, Lemerre’s assistant Daniel Leclercq was promoted to the hot seat – the club’s fourth coach in little over a year. A former Lens stalwart now remembered fondly as ‘the Druid’, Leclercq quickly set about transforming the team’s playing philosophy, from defensive diehards into an ersatz northern Barcelona. 

“In his head, he had an idea,” recalls Sikora. “It was to leave his mark on the spirit of RC Lens.” Adding playmaker Stéphane Ziani and centre-forward Anto Drobnjak to a squad that had largely operated together for several years, the demanding new boss drilled his side into a free-flowing attacking unit – both at home and away. “Wherever we go, Lens will play to win” was his credo, a remarkable mindset for a man whose only previous experience as head coach had come in a brief spell at Valenciennes a decade before. 

Leclercq’s ambition outstripped that of even his own club president, Gervais Martel, who assembled the ranks before the start of the season and told them qualification for the UEFA Cup would be a success. “Now, that’s a speech I cannot agree with,” Leclercq is reputed to have said once Martel had left the room. “I have faith in my squad. Me, I want to win the league.

“Daniel had high expectations,” explains Sikora, who has held the Lens coaching reins twice himself – among various roles in 43 years of loyal service since joining as a youth player in 1980. “At one point in the second half of the season, he came into the changing room and asked us, one by one, if we were going to be champions. He was certain we could do it, and I think something changed in our heads at that moment. We told ourselves we were able to go for it.”

Midway through the campaign, Lens lay fifth in the standings, albeit having posted some eye-catching wins. Newcomer Drobnjak had struck a hat-trick in a 3-2 August victory at Marseille and the Montenegrin forward repeated the feat in an even more spectacular 5-4 home defeat of Cannes in November, the visitors having rallied from 4-0 down before fellow summer signing Ziani buried a late penalty. Crucially, Leclercq’s side never let surprise leaders Metz race too far clear – and they reeled them in down the final stretch thanks to ten wins from their last 12 fixtures.

None was more significant than their trip to face the pacesetters on 29 March 1998. Take all three points and Lens would go top with a mere four matches left. “It’s true that both Metz and us had great teams,” remembers Šmicer. “Metz had Robert Pirès, Rigobert Song and several experienced players. So, they had a great spell and so did we, whereas Paris, Marseille and Monaco were all having issues.” Playing on the right wing of a settled 4-3-3 formation, it was Šmicer himself who crossed for Drobnjak to break the deadlock, and the goalscorer soon pounced again to reverse the hierarchy at the summit.

Even so, the title hung in the balance on the final day. Two points separated Lens from Metz as they headed to meet an Auxerre team chasing a UEFA Cup berth. Provided Metz did not rack up a hatful against Lyon, Lens could snare the crown on goal difference with a draw. The only question now was how their confidence was bearing up after a 2-1 loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the French Cup final the previous weekend – and that question intensified when Sabri Lamouchi gave Auxerre an early lead, around the same time that Metz also went ahead.

“We were running all over the place. We were out of control. It was magical”
Yoann Lachor wheels away after scoring the equaliser at Auxerre that clinched the title

“We were losing 1-0 at half-time,” says Sikora, the starting right-back in all but two league games that term. “We came into the changing room and there was no shouting, no panicking. We had that strength and we knew that at some point we were going to come back and score because we had that philosophy and we believed in ourselves. The coach encouraged us to continue playing.”

Substituted at the interval due to a head injury, Šmicer had a slightly different perspective on the drama, even after left-back Yoann Lachor equalised in the 53rd minute, making the most of a visionary pass from Frédéric Déhu. “I was watching from the bench, so I was even more stressed. When you’re playing, it doesn’t feel as bad because you’re focusing on the match. My whole head was wrapped up in bandage and… well, I believed. When we scored to make it 1-1, I felt Auxerre didn’t have it in them to get another goal. We played responsibly and, considering the whole season, I think we deserved to win.”

Metz completed a 1-0 victory against Lyon, though it mattered not as Les Sang et Or held on for the point they needed. Incredibly, the title belonged to Lens, those upstarts of the ailing north… and now the madness could unfold. “We were running all over the place, we messed around with the backroom staff and we were out of control – it was a magical moment,” remembers Sikora. And while he and his team-mates long celebrated with their travelling fans, president Martel delivered a message to the supporters watching on television: “Get ready because we’re coming home and it’s going to be crazy!”

No one needed the invitation. The headlights of cars lined up practically bumper to bumper on the motorway were visible from the air as the Lens squad landed at Lille airport around 2am, to be met by thousands of ecstatic Lensois. “The airport was packed full of people,” adds Sikora. “We saw some little kids and we were afraid because they were really crushed together. From Lille, we travelled to the stadium, but people were following us on the motorway. They were waving to us from their car windows. It was crazy.”

With more supporters sweeping into town from across the region, Lens made the spontaneous decision to open the Stade Félix-Bollaert at 3am. A classic English-style ground, the stadium quickly filled with around 30,000 people hungry to commune with their heroes through the night and into the morning, when the players had live TV interviews to conduct. Anyone itching for sleep then needed about a gallon of coffee because a parade to the town hall was next on the schedule… and it was going to take a while.

The skip had been the idea of a local skip salesman ahead of the French Cup final. Lens had never previously required an open-top bus, and so here was their version of Cinderella’s carriage to the ball, a hulking mass of steel painted in red-and-yellow stripes. “We were a village club, so that’s why we went on a tractor with a skip,” says Šmicer. “The city was full of our supporters. It took us three hours to get there instead of the usual ten minutes. People were celebrating everywhere, and we couldn’t just pass them by.”

The journey also lasted forever because the man in the cabin was terrified of running over a fan. Martel had never driven a tractor in his life, and yet it was typical of his charismatic style to hop on board, ten years after he had assumed the presidency of a club in financial crisis at the age of 33. For him, this was the purest joy football could provide. “When people talk to me about 1998,” he later declared, “it’s not the World Cup that comes to mind. It’s RC Lens becoming champions. I cried warm tears when we won at Auxerre, but not for Les Bleus.”

Even though Lemerre was on the coaching staff, no Lens players were included in France’s World Cup squad that summer, with forward Tony Vairelles perhaps closest to selection. It’s hard to quibble, given what happened next, but it still feels remarkable that none of the ten Ligue 1 representatives hailed from the reigning champions. Either way, Leclercq’s side were soon given a chance to avenge the snub in the Champions League the following season, with an Arsenal team featuring World Cup winners Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit first up at the Stade Félix-Bollaert.

“We were a bit nervous as we’d never faced a team as strong as Arsenal,” says Šmicer. The hosts had lost both Drobnjak and Ziani during the summer, along with club captain Jean-Guy Wallemme, and they fell behind to a Marc Overmars strike shortly after the break, but the old resilience was clearly still there as Vairelles himself levelled the scores in added time. “He was a player with a big heart, a fighter,” adds Šmicer. “The fans loved him. He was a giant warrior. He could have been a world champion. I still believe he deserved to be in the [France] team.”

A solid start, and the best was yet to come. After a creditable 1-1 draw away to Dynamo Kyiv, followed by a win and a loss against Panathinaikos, Les Sang et Or travelled to Wembley for a second tilt at Arsène Wenger’s Gunners. “We went there wanting to cause an upset,” says Sikora. “The night before, during training, everything went well. The coach gave us 15 or 20 minutes to work on set pieces, volleys and crosses. We were like kids: we stayed for 45 minutes. Wembley is a legendary stadium, so we stayed for a while.”

No French team had ever beaten English opponents at the venerated old ground, and yet Lens were fearless. “We didn’t feel like outsiders at all,” says Šmicer, who was in radiant form that night – under the watchful eye of the Liverpool scouts who would take him to Anfield a few months later. Šmicer went on to score in the 2005 Champions League final, but he names this as his single greatest performance in the competition, and it was his nifty footwork and skewed shot that allowed Mickaël Debève to jab in the only goal of the game after 72 minutes, before both sides later had a player sent off.

For L’Équipe, here was a victory to rank alongside the World Cup final itself. “This year of 1998 is decidedly even more historic than we thought,” raved the sports daily. “After the unique, eternal joy we experienced on 12 July, now we have this thunderous upset of 25 November.” Unfortunately for Lens, a 3-1 loss away to Dynamo Kyiv then consigned them to second place in the group, at a time when only the winners were guaranteed a knockout berth.

The Champions League adventure had come to an end and, after another group stage exit in 2002/03, it would lay dormant for over 20 years until this season. But the raucous exploit of their Ligue 1 title still fires up the club and supporters alike, not least since that famous skip stands outside their home ground to this day. Renovated in June by a class of local pupils, many volunteering to work in their free time, it’s hard to think of a more perfect symbol for Lens. Down to earth, rustic and resourceful. Resilient as moulded metal – and the enduring pride of an entire region. 

We can be Heroes

They may not have been household names, but Lens’s 1997/98 Ligue 1 title winners left an indelible mark on one corner of northern France 

Guillaume Warmuz

The long-serving goalkeeper played every minute of the campaign, conceding just 30 goals in 34 games.

Éric Sikora

Joined Lens aged 12 in 1980 and has served the club ever since, including a record 590 outings as right-back.

Cyrille Magnier

The central defender spent 12 years at the club, forming a solid partnership with Jean-Guy Wallemme.

Jean-Guy Wallemme

Lens’s inspirational captain left after the title win but returned as coach from 2008 to 2010.

Yoann Lachor

A Lens academy product, the left-back was 22 when he struck the title-winning equaliser at Auxerre.

Frédéric Déhu

The diligent holding player provided balance in the middle before signing for Barcelona
in 1999.

Michaël Debève

The midfielder sealed his place in club history with his Wembley winner against Arsenal in 1998.

Stéphane Ziani

The creative heart contributed 11 league goals and seven assists in his sole season with Lens.

Vladimír Šmicer

Later a Champions League winner with Liverpool, the Czech international provided dynamic impetus down the right.

Anto Drobnjak

Spent just one year with Lens but led the way with 14 league goals as he spearheaded the side.

Tony Vairelles

Nicknamed ‘Tonygoal’, the left prong of the Lens attack struck nine league goals in 1997/98.

Substitutes 

Marc-Vivien Foé

The Cameroonian died tragically on international duty in 2003 and has a street named in his honour outside Lens’s stadium. 

Philippe Brunel

Renowned for his passing, the midfielder later represented Lens’s local rivals LOSC Lille. 

Wagneau Eloi

The Haiti-born forward was mostly used off the bench but still contributed three goals.  

Hervé Arsène

Later coach of Madagascar, the defender capped his final season as a professional with the Ligue 1 crown. 

History
History repeating

Lens celebrated their first home Champions League game in 21 years with a stunning win against a familiar foe

“As soon as we began warming up, I could feel this was a special game compared to usual.” For Lens midfielder Adrien Thomasson and his team-mates, the club’s long-awaited return to Champions League action on home soil will live long in the memory. A twist of fate had reunited Les Sang et Or with Arsenal in the group stage draw, but few expected another upset triumph when the Gunners came calling on Matchday 2 – and even fewer after Gabriel Jesus put them in front on 14 minutes. 

Falling behind had become a familiar sensation to the Lens faithful in a sluggish start to the domestic campaign, but the noise levels never dropped in the stands. The colourful array of flags never stopped waving either, and the fervent atmosphere soon brought the best out of the hosts, with Thomasson himself curling in the equaliser before Elye Wahi completed a superb comeback win in the second half. “I could feel the supporters boosting us and it was an extraordinary moment,” added Thomasson, just four years old when Lens had beaten the same opponents at Wembley – but now a key figure in a victory to be ranked alongside that result in the annals of the club.

The year 1998 still towers over the landscape of French football as a glorious milestone. Who, after all, can forget how RC Lens shocked a nation by clinching their one and only Ligue 1 title… and also that other thing with Les Bleus and Brazil? But whereas Zinédine Zidane and Co cruised down the Champs-Élysées in an open-top bus for their World Cup victory parade, the domestic champions had to settle for a more ramshackle mode of transport – if you can call what is essentially a massive metal bin “a mode of transport”. Skips don’t usually tend to carry passengers, but this one carted a squad-load, the players leaning over the sides as they were towed through Lens by a tractor, and none other than the club’s president at the wheel.

“The madness” is how club legend Éric Sikora refers to Lens’s Ligue 1 title celebrations. It’s an apt phrase for that entire period, when a team representing a region in steep economic decline somehow conquered France, before going on to post a famous Champions League victory at Wembley. Les Sang et Or (the Blood and Gold) are back in the European elite this season, a quarter of a century after their sole French crown, and their return has stirred up memories in the small but passionate football hotbed, where Sikora’s name and those of his team-mates touched more hearts in 1998 than the likes of Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly. 

“The fans’ support is massive,” says Vladimír Šmicer, another hero of that title-winning team. “People in Lens love football and love the club. There is not much else to do, really. It’s a small town of about 35,000. And the stadium has a capacity of nearly 40,000. But there’s a large urban area around the town and a lot of people come to see the matches. The players feel a responsibility to make them happy and win for them.”

That was especially true in the 1990s as the closure of the last remaining pits devastated the former coalmining stronghold. An estimated 200,000 jobs were lost in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region over the final two decades of the century, and that put Les Sang et Or in the tricky position of defending the bruised honour of a struggling community. Too bad, then, that the club had never won a major title since being founded in 1906. And nor did that look poised to change at the start of the 1997/98 season, with Lens having barely staved off demotion to Ligue 2 a few months before.

“We almost got relegated the previous season so we didn’t know where we were going,” says Sikora, a local lad and childhood Lens fan who made a record 590 appearances for the club. As for Šmicer, he had come from further afield, the Czech international joining from Slavia Praha in 1996, but he too remembers the team’s toils in his debut campaign, before Roger Lemerre steered them to safety after replacing Slavoljub Muslin. “We didn’t play very well in that first season. Everyone was disappointed.”

The mood at the Stade Félix-Bollaert scarcely improved when Lemerre then left to work with France coach Aimé Jacquet. In an astute piece of internal recruitment, however, Lemerre’s assistant Daniel Leclercq was promoted to the hot seat – the club’s fourth coach in little over a year. A former Lens stalwart now remembered fondly as ‘the Druid’, Leclercq quickly set about transforming the team’s playing philosophy, from defensive diehards into an ersatz northern Barcelona. 

“In his head, he had an idea,” recalls Sikora. “It was to leave his mark on the spirit of RC Lens.” Adding playmaker Stéphane Ziani and centre-forward Anto Drobnjak to a squad that had largely operated together for several years, the demanding new boss drilled his side into a free-flowing attacking unit – both at home and away. “Wherever we go, Lens will play to win” was his credo, a remarkable mindset for a man whose only previous experience as head coach had come in a brief spell at Valenciennes a decade before. 

Leclercq’s ambition outstripped that of even his own club president, Gervais Martel, who assembled the ranks before the start of the season and told them qualification for the UEFA Cup would be a success. “Now, that’s a speech I cannot agree with,” Leclercq is reputed to have said once Martel had left the room. “I have faith in my squad. Me, I want to win the league.

“Daniel had high expectations,” explains Sikora, who has held the Lens coaching reins twice himself – among various roles in 43 years of loyal service since joining as a youth player in 1980. “At one point in the second half of the season, he came into the changing room and asked us, one by one, if we were going to be champions. He was certain we could do it, and I think something changed in our heads at that moment. We told ourselves we were able to go for it.”

Midway through the campaign, Lens lay fifth in the standings, albeit having posted some eye-catching wins. Newcomer Drobnjak had struck a hat-trick in a 3-2 August victory at Marseille and the Montenegrin forward repeated the feat in an even more spectacular 5-4 home defeat of Cannes in November, the visitors having rallied from 4-0 down before fellow summer signing Ziani buried a late penalty. Crucially, Leclercq’s side never let surprise leaders Metz race too far clear – and they reeled them in down the final stretch thanks to ten wins from their last 12 fixtures.

None was more significant than their trip to face the pacesetters on 29 March 1998. Take all three points and Lens would go top with a mere four matches left. “It’s true that both Metz and us had great teams,” remembers Šmicer. “Metz had Robert Pirès, Rigobert Song and several experienced players. So, they had a great spell and so did we, whereas Paris, Marseille and Monaco were all having issues.” Playing on the right wing of a settled 4-3-3 formation, it was Šmicer himself who crossed for Drobnjak to break the deadlock, and the goalscorer soon pounced again to reverse the hierarchy at the summit.

Even so, the title hung in the balance on the final day. Two points separated Lens from Metz as they headed to meet an Auxerre team chasing a UEFA Cup berth. Provided Metz did not rack up a hatful against Lyon, Lens could snare the crown on goal difference with a draw. The only question now was how their confidence was bearing up after a 2-1 loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the French Cup final the previous weekend – and that question intensified when Sabri Lamouchi gave Auxerre an early lead, around the same time that Metz also went ahead.

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“We were running all over the place. We were out of control. It was magical”
Yoann Lachor wheels away after scoring the equaliser at Auxerre that clinched the title

“We were losing 1-0 at half-time,” says Sikora, the starting right-back in all but two league games that term. “We came into the changing room and there was no shouting, no panicking. We had that strength and we knew that at some point we were going to come back and score because we had that philosophy and we believed in ourselves. The coach encouraged us to continue playing.”

Substituted at the interval due to a head injury, Šmicer had a slightly different perspective on the drama, even after left-back Yoann Lachor equalised in the 53rd minute, making the most of a visionary pass from Frédéric Déhu. “I was watching from the bench, so I was even more stressed. When you’re playing, it doesn’t feel as bad because you’re focusing on the match. My whole head was wrapped up in bandage and… well, I believed. When we scored to make it 1-1, I felt Auxerre didn’t have it in them to get another goal. We played responsibly and, considering the whole season, I think we deserved to win.”

Metz completed a 1-0 victory against Lyon, though it mattered not as Les Sang et Or held on for the point they needed. Incredibly, the title belonged to Lens, those upstarts of the ailing north… and now the madness could unfold. “We were running all over the place, we messed around with the backroom staff and we were out of control – it was a magical moment,” remembers Sikora. And while he and his team-mates long celebrated with their travelling fans, president Martel delivered a message to the supporters watching on television: “Get ready because we’re coming home and it’s going to be crazy!”

No one needed the invitation. The headlights of cars lined up practically bumper to bumper on the motorway were visible from the air as the Lens squad landed at Lille airport around 2am, to be met by thousands of ecstatic Lensois. “The airport was packed full of people,” adds Sikora. “We saw some little kids and we were afraid because they were really crushed together. From Lille, we travelled to the stadium, but people were following us on the motorway. They were waving to us from their car windows. It was crazy.”

With more supporters sweeping into town from across the region, Lens made the spontaneous decision to open the Stade Félix-Bollaert at 3am. A classic English-style ground, the stadium quickly filled with around 30,000 people hungry to commune with their heroes through the night and into the morning, when the players had live TV interviews to conduct. Anyone itching for sleep then needed about a gallon of coffee because a parade to the town hall was next on the schedule… and it was going to take a while.

The skip had been the idea of a local skip salesman ahead of the French Cup final. Lens had never previously required an open-top bus, and so here was their version of Cinderella’s carriage to the ball, a hulking mass of steel painted in red-and-yellow stripes. “We were a village club, so that’s why we went on a tractor with a skip,” says Šmicer. “The city was full of our supporters. It took us three hours to get there instead of the usual ten minutes. People were celebrating everywhere, and we couldn’t just pass them by.”

The journey also lasted forever because the man in the cabin was terrified of running over a fan. Martel had never driven a tractor in his life, and yet it was typical of his charismatic style to hop on board, ten years after he had assumed the presidency of a club in financial crisis at the age of 33. For him, this was the purest joy football could provide. “When people talk to me about 1998,” he later declared, “it’s not the World Cup that comes to mind. It’s RC Lens becoming champions. I cried warm tears when we won at Auxerre, but not for Les Bleus.”

Even though Lemerre was on the coaching staff, no Lens players were included in France’s World Cup squad that summer, with forward Tony Vairelles perhaps closest to selection. It’s hard to quibble, given what happened next, but it still feels remarkable that none of the ten Ligue 1 representatives hailed from the reigning champions. Either way, Leclercq’s side were soon given a chance to avenge the snub in the Champions League the following season, with an Arsenal team featuring World Cup winners Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit first up at the Stade Félix-Bollaert.

“We were a bit nervous as we’d never faced a team as strong as Arsenal,” says Šmicer. The hosts had lost both Drobnjak and Ziani during the summer, along with club captain Jean-Guy Wallemme, and they fell behind to a Marc Overmars strike shortly after the break, but the old resilience was clearly still there as Vairelles himself levelled the scores in added time. “He was a player with a big heart, a fighter,” adds Šmicer. “The fans loved him. He was a giant warrior. He could have been a world champion. I still believe he deserved to be in the [France] team.”

A solid start, and the best was yet to come. After a creditable 1-1 draw away to Dynamo Kyiv, followed by a win and a loss against Panathinaikos, Les Sang et Or travelled to Wembley for a second tilt at Arsène Wenger’s Gunners. “We went there wanting to cause an upset,” says Sikora. “The night before, during training, everything went well. The coach gave us 15 or 20 minutes to work on set pieces, volleys and crosses. We were like kids: we stayed for 45 minutes. Wembley is a legendary stadium, so we stayed for a while.”

No French team had ever beaten English opponents at the venerated old ground, and yet Lens were fearless. “We didn’t feel like outsiders at all,” says Šmicer, who was in radiant form that night – under the watchful eye of the Liverpool scouts who would take him to Anfield a few months later. Šmicer went on to score in the 2005 Champions League final, but he names this as his single greatest performance in the competition, and it was his nifty footwork and skewed shot that allowed Mickaël Debève to jab in the only goal of the game after 72 minutes, before both sides later had a player sent off.

For L’Équipe, here was a victory to rank alongside the World Cup final itself. “This year of 1998 is decidedly even more historic than we thought,” raved the sports daily. “After the unique, eternal joy we experienced on 12 July, now we have this thunderous upset of 25 November.” Unfortunately for Lens, a 3-1 loss away to Dynamo Kyiv then consigned them to second place in the group, at a time when only the winners were guaranteed a knockout berth.

The Champions League adventure had come to an end and, after another group stage exit in 2002/03, it would lay dormant for over 20 years until this season. But the raucous exploit of their Ligue 1 title still fires up the club and supporters alike, not least since that famous skip stands outside their home ground to this day. Renovated in June by a class of local pupils, many volunteering to work in their free time, it’s hard to think of a more perfect symbol for Lens. Down to earth, rustic and resourceful. Resilient as moulded metal – and the enduring pride of an entire region. 

We can be Heroes

They may not have been household names, but Lens’s 1997/98 Ligue 1 title winners left an indelible mark on one corner of northern France 

Guillaume Warmuz

The long-serving goalkeeper played every minute of the campaign, conceding just 30 goals in 34 games.

Éric Sikora

Joined Lens aged 12 in 1980 and has served the club ever since, including a record 590 outings as right-back.

Cyrille Magnier

The central defender spent 12 years at the club, forming a solid partnership with Jean-Guy Wallemme.

Jean-Guy Wallemme

Lens’s inspirational captain left after the title win but returned as coach from 2008 to 2010.

Yoann Lachor

A Lens academy product, the left-back was 22 when he struck the title-winning equaliser at Auxerre.

Frédéric Déhu

The diligent holding player provided balance in the middle before signing for Barcelona
in 1999.

Michaël Debève

The midfielder sealed his place in club history with his Wembley winner against Arsenal in 1998.

Stéphane Ziani

The creative heart contributed 11 league goals and seven assists in his sole season with Lens.

Vladimír Šmicer

Later a Champions League winner with Liverpool, the Czech international provided dynamic impetus down the right.

Anto Drobnjak

Spent just one year with Lens but led the way with 14 league goals as he spearheaded the side.

Tony Vairelles

Nicknamed ‘Tonygoal’, the left prong of the Lens attack struck nine league goals in 1997/98.

Substitutes 

Marc-Vivien Foé

The Cameroonian died tragically on international duty in 2003 and has a street named in his honour outside Lens’s stadium. 

Philippe Brunel

Renowned for his passing, the midfielder later represented Lens’s local rivals LOSC Lille. 

Wagneau Eloi

The Haiti-born forward was mostly used off the bench but still contributed three goals.  

Hervé Arsène

Later coach of Madagascar, the defender capped his final season as a professional with the Ligue 1 crown. 

History
History repeating

Lens celebrated their first home Champions League game in 21 years with a stunning win against a familiar foe

“As soon as we began warming up, I could feel this was a special game compared to usual.” For Lens midfielder Adrien Thomasson and his team-mates, the club’s long-awaited return to Champions League action on home soil will live long in the memory. A twist of fate had reunited Les Sang et Or with Arsenal in the group stage draw, but few expected another upset triumph when the Gunners came calling on Matchday 2 – and even fewer after Gabriel Jesus put them in front on 14 minutes. 

Falling behind had become a familiar sensation to the Lens faithful in a sluggish start to the domestic campaign, but the noise levels never dropped in the stands. The colourful array of flags never stopped waving either, and the fervent atmosphere soon brought the best out of the hosts, with Thomasson himself curling in the equaliser before Elye Wahi completed a superb comeback win in the second half. “I could feel the supporters boosting us and it was an extraordinary moment,” added Thomasson, just four years old when Lens had beaten the same opponents at Wembley – but now a key figure in a victory to be ranked alongside that result in the annals of the club.

The year 1998 still towers over the landscape of French football as a glorious milestone. Who, after all, can forget how RC Lens shocked a nation by clinching their one and only Ligue 1 title… and also that other thing with Les Bleus and Brazil? But whereas Zinédine Zidane and Co cruised down the Champs-Élysées in an open-top bus for their World Cup victory parade, the domestic champions had to settle for a more ramshackle mode of transport – if you can call what is essentially a massive metal bin “a mode of transport”. Skips don’t usually tend to carry passengers, but this one carted a squad-load, the players leaning over the sides as they were towed through Lens by a tractor, and none other than the club’s president at the wheel.

“The madness” is how club legend Éric Sikora refers to Lens’s Ligue 1 title celebrations. It’s an apt phrase for that entire period, when a team representing a region in steep economic decline somehow conquered France, before going on to post a famous Champions League victory at Wembley. Les Sang et Or (the Blood and Gold) are back in the European elite this season, a quarter of a century after their sole French crown, and their return has stirred up memories in the small but passionate football hotbed, where Sikora’s name and those of his team-mates touched more hearts in 1998 than the likes of Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly. 

“The fans’ support is massive,” says Vladimír Šmicer, another hero of that title-winning team. “People in Lens love football and love the club. There is not much else to do, really. It’s a small town of about 35,000. And the stadium has a capacity of nearly 40,000. But there’s a large urban area around the town and a lot of people come to see the matches. The players feel a responsibility to make them happy and win for them.”

That was especially true in the 1990s as the closure of the last remaining pits devastated the former coalmining stronghold. An estimated 200,000 jobs were lost in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region over the final two decades of the century, and that put Les Sang et Or in the tricky position of defending the bruised honour of a struggling community. Too bad, then, that the club had never won a major title since being founded in 1906. And nor did that look poised to change at the start of the 1997/98 season, with Lens having barely staved off demotion to Ligue 2 a few months before.

“We almost got relegated the previous season so we didn’t know where we were going,” says Sikora, a local lad and childhood Lens fan who made a record 590 appearances for the club. As for Šmicer, he had come from further afield, the Czech international joining from Slavia Praha in 1996, but he too remembers the team’s toils in his debut campaign, before Roger Lemerre steered them to safety after replacing Slavoljub Muslin. “We didn’t play very well in that first season. Everyone was disappointed.”

The mood at the Stade Félix-Bollaert scarcely improved when Lemerre then left to work with France coach Aimé Jacquet. In an astute piece of internal recruitment, however, Lemerre’s assistant Daniel Leclercq was promoted to the hot seat – the club’s fourth coach in little over a year. A former Lens stalwart now remembered fondly as ‘the Druid’, Leclercq quickly set about transforming the team’s playing philosophy, from defensive diehards into an ersatz northern Barcelona. 

“In his head, he had an idea,” recalls Sikora. “It was to leave his mark on the spirit of RC Lens.” Adding playmaker Stéphane Ziani and centre-forward Anto Drobnjak to a squad that had largely operated together for several years, the demanding new boss drilled his side into a free-flowing attacking unit – both at home and away. “Wherever we go, Lens will play to win” was his credo, a remarkable mindset for a man whose only previous experience as head coach had come in a brief spell at Valenciennes a decade before. 

Leclercq’s ambition outstripped that of even his own club president, Gervais Martel, who assembled the ranks before the start of the season and told them qualification for the UEFA Cup would be a success. “Now, that’s a speech I cannot agree with,” Leclercq is reputed to have said once Martel had left the room. “I have faith in my squad. Me, I want to win the league.

“Daniel had high expectations,” explains Sikora, who has held the Lens coaching reins twice himself – among various roles in 43 years of loyal service since joining as a youth player in 1980. “At one point in the second half of the season, he came into the changing room and asked us, one by one, if we were going to be champions. He was certain we could do it, and I think something changed in our heads at that moment. We told ourselves we were able to go for it.”

Midway through the campaign, Lens lay fifth in the standings, albeit having posted some eye-catching wins. Newcomer Drobnjak had struck a hat-trick in a 3-2 August victory at Marseille and the Montenegrin forward repeated the feat in an even more spectacular 5-4 home defeat of Cannes in November, the visitors having rallied from 4-0 down before fellow summer signing Ziani buried a late penalty. Crucially, Leclercq’s side never let surprise leaders Metz race too far clear – and they reeled them in down the final stretch thanks to ten wins from their last 12 fixtures.

None was more significant than their trip to face the pacesetters on 29 March 1998. Take all three points and Lens would go top with a mere four matches left. “It’s true that both Metz and us had great teams,” remembers Šmicer. “Metz had Robert Pirès, Rigobert Song and several experienced players. So, they had a great spell and so did we, whereas Paris, Marseille and Monaco were all having issues.” Playing on the right wing of a settled 4-3-3 formation, it was Šmicer himself who crossed for Drobnjak to break the deadlock, and the goalscorer soon pounced again to reverse the hierarchy at the summit.

Even so, the title hung in the balance on the final day. Two points separated Lens from Metz as they headed to meet an Auxerre team chasing a UEFA Cup berth. Provided Metz did not rack up a hatful against Lyon, Lens could snare the crown on goal difference with a draw. The only question now was how their confidence was bearing up after a 2-1 loss to Paris Saint-Germain in the French Cup final the previous weekend – and that question intensified when Sabri Lamouchi gave Auxerre an early lead, around the same time that Metz also went ahead.

“We were running all over the place. We were out of control. It was magical”
Yoann Lachor wheels away after scoring the equaliser at Auxerre that clinched the title

“We were losing 1-0 at half-time,” says Sikora, the starting right-back in all but two league games that term. “We came into the changing room and there was no shouting, no panicking. We had that strength and we knew that at some point we were going to come back and score because we had that philosophy and we believed in ourselves. The coach encouraged us to continue playing.”

Substituted at the interval due to a head injury, Šmicer had a slightly different perspective on the drama, even after left-back Yoann Lachor equalised in the 53rd minute, making the most of a visionary pass from Frédéric Déhu. “I was watching from the bench, so I was even more stressed. When you’re playing, it doesn’t feel as bad because you’re focusing on the match. My whole head was wrapped up in bandage and… well, I believed. When we scored to make it 1-1, I felt Auxerre didn’t have it in them to get another goal. We played responsibly and, considering the whole season, I think we deserved to win.”

Metz completed a 1-0 victory against Lyon, though it mattered not as Les Sang et Or held on for the point they needed. Incredibly, the title belonged to Lens, those upstarts of the ailing north… and now the madness could unfold. “We were running all over the place, we messed around with the backroom staff and we were out of control – it was a magical moment,” remembers Sikora. And while he and his team-mates long celebrated with their travelling fans, president Martel delivered a message to the supporters watching on television: “Get ready because we’re coming home and it’s going to be crazy!”

No one needed the invitation. The headlights of cars lined up practically bumper to bumper on the motorway were visible from the air as the Lens squad landed at Lille airport around 2am, to be met by thousands of ecstatic Lensois. “The airport was packed full of people,” adds Sikora. “We saw some little kids and we were afraid because they were really crushed together. From Lille, we travelled to the stadium, but people were following us on the motorway. They were waving to us from their car windows. It was crazy.”

With more supporters sweeping into town from across the region, Lens made the spontaneous decision to open the Stade Félix-Bollaert at 3am. A classic English-style ground, the stadium quickly filled with around 30,000 people hungry to commune with their heroes through the night and into the morning, when the players had live TV interviews to conduct. Anyone itching for sleep then needed about a gallon of coffee because a parade to the town hall was next on the schedule… and it was going to take a while.

The skip had been the idea of a local skip salesman ahead of the French Cup final. Lens had never previously required an open-top bus, and so here was their version of Cinderella’s carriage to the ball, a hulking mass of steel painted in red-and-yellow stripes. “We were a village club, so that’s why we went on a tractor with a skip,” says Šmicer. “The city was full of our supporters. It took us three hours to get there instead of the usual ten minutes. People were celebrating everywhere, and we couldn’t just pass them by.”

The journey also lasted forever because the man in the cabin was terrified of running over a fan. Martel had never driven a tractor in his life, and yet it was typical of his charismatic style to hop on board, ten years after he had assumed the presidency of a club in financial crisis at the age of 33. For him, this was the purest joy football could provide. “When people talk to me about 1998,” he later declared, “it’s not the World Cup that comes to mind. It’s RC Lens becoming champions. I cried warm tears when we won at Auxerre, but not for Les Bleus.”

Even though Lemerre was on the coaching staff, no Lens players were included in France’s World Cup squad that summer, with forward Tony Vairelles perhaps closest to selection. It’s hard to quibble, given what happened next, but it still feels remarkable that none of the ten Ligue 1 representatives hailed from the reigning champions. Either way, Leclercq’s side were soon given a chance to avenge the snub in the Champions League the following season, with an Arsenal team featuring World Cup winners Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit first up at the Stade Félix-Bollaert.

“We were a bit nervous as we’d never faced a team as strong as Arsenal,” says Šmicer. The hosts had lost both Drobnjak and Ziani during the summer, along with club captain Jean-Guy Wallemme, and they fell behind to a Marc Overmars strike shortly after the break, but the old resilience was clearly still there as Vairelles himself levelled the scores in added time. “He was a player with a big heart, a fighter,” adds Šmicer. “The fans loved him. He was a giant warrior. He could have been a world champion. I still believe he deserved to be in the [France] team.”

A solid start, and the best was yet to come. After a creditable 1-1 draw away to Dynamo Kyiv, followed by a win and a loss against Panathinaikos, Les Sang et Or travelled to Wembley for a second tilt at Arsène Wenger’s Gunners. “We went there wanting to cause an upset,” says Sikora. “The night before, during training, everything went well. The coach gave us 15 or 20 minutes to work on set pieces, volleys and crosses. We were like kids: we stayed for 45 minutes. Wembley is a legendary stadium, so we stayed for a while.”

No French team had ever beaten English opponents at the venerated old ground, and yet Lens were fearless. “We didn’t feel like outsiders at all,” says Šmicer, who was in radiant form that night – under the watchful eye of the Liverpool scouts who would take him to Anfield a few months later. Šmicer went on to score in the 2005 Champions League final, but he names this as his single greatest performance in the competition, and it was his nifty footwork and skewed shot that allowed Mickaël Debève to jab in the only goal of the game after 72 minutes, before both sides later had a player sent off.

For L’Équipe, here was a victory to rank alongside the World Cup final itself. “This year of 1998 is decidedly even more historic than we thought,” raved the sports daily. “After the unique, eternal joy we experienced on 12 July, now we have this thunderous upset of 25 November.” Unfortunately for Lens, a 3-1 loss away to Dynamo Kyiv then consigned them to second place in the group, at a time when only the winners were guaranteed a knockout berth.

The Champions League adventure had come to an end and, after another group stage exit in 2002/03, it would lay dormant for over 20 years until this season. But the raucous exploit of their Ligue 1 title still fires up the club and supporters alike, not least since that famous skip stands outside their home ground to this day. Renovated in June by a class of local pupils, many volunteering to work in their free time, it’s hard to think of a more perfect symbol for Lens. Down to earth, rustic and resourceful. Resilient as moulded metal – and the enduring pride of an entire region. 

We can be Heroes

They may not have been household names, but Lens’s 1997/98 Ligue 1 title winners left an indelible mark on one corner of northern France 

Guillaume Warmuz

The long-serving goalkeeper played every minute of the campaign, conceding just 30 goals in 34 games.

Éric Sikora

Joined Lens aged 12 in 1980 and has served the club ever since, including a record 590 outings as right-back.

Cyrille Magnier

The central defender spent 12 years at the club, forming a solid partnership with Jean-Guy Wallemme.

Jean-Guy Wallemme

Lens’s inspirational captain left after the title win but returned as coach from 2008 to 2010.

Yoann Lachor

A Lens academy product, the left-back was 22 when he struck the title-winning equaliser at Auxerre.

Frédéric Déhu

The diligent holding player provided balance in the middle before signing for Barcelona
in 1999.

Michaël Debève

The midfielder sealed his place in club history with his Wembley winner against Arsenal in 1998.

Stéphane Ziani

The creative heart contributed 11 league goals and seven assists in his sole season with Lens.

Vladimír Šmicer

Later a Champions League winner with Liverpool, the Czech international provided dynamic impetus down the right.

Anto Drobnjak

Spent just one year with Lens but led the way with 14 league goals as he spearheaded the side.

Tony Vairelles

Nicknamed ‘Tonygoal’, the left prong of the Lens attack struck nine league goals in 1997/98.

Substitutes 

Marc-Vivien Foé

The Cameroonian died tragically on international duty in 2003 and has a street named in his honour outside Lens’s stadium. 

Philippe Brunel

Renowned for his passing, the midfielder later represented Lens’s local rivals LOSC Lille. 

Wagneau Eloi

The Haiti-born forward was mostly used off the bench but still contributed three goals.  

Hervé Arsène

Later coach of Madagascar, the defender capped his final season as a professional with the Ligue 1 crown. 

History
History repeating

Lens celebrated their first home Champions League game in 21 years with a stunning win against a familiar foe

“As soon as we began warming up, I could feel this was a special game compared to usual.” For Lens midfielder Adrien Thomasson and his team-mates, the club’s long-awaited return to Champions League action on home soil will live long in the memory. A twist of fate had reunited Les Sang et Or with Arsenal in the group stage draw, but few expected another upset triumph when the Gunners came calling on Matchday 2 – and even fewer after Gabriel Jesus put them in front on 14 minutes. 

Falling behind had become a familiar sensation to the Lens faithful in a sluggish start to the domestic campaign, but the noise levels never dropped in the stands. The colourful array of flags never stopped waving either, and the fervent atmosphere soon brought the best out of the hosts, with Thomasson himself curling in the equaliser before Elye Wahi completed a superb comeback win in the second half. “I could feel the supporters boosting us and it was an extraordinary moment,” added Thomasson, just four years old when Lens had beaten the same opponents at Wembley – but now a key figure in a victory to be ranked alongside that result in the annals of the club.

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